GREEN BAY, Wis. (MCT) — According to the planetary chart, the sun had risen. But the water of Green Bay was cloaked in dark, gray fog and low clouds at 7:30 a.m. Central time.
We’d have to take the sunrise as an article of faith.
That’s not a stretch for anglers, who by nature trust in the unseen.
But when it comes to musky fishing — the “fish of 10,000 casts” — it requires an extra measure of belief.
“They’re out there,” said Dennis Radloff, 45, of Oconomowoc, Wis., looking at the dark water from the Metro Public Boat Launch. “I have a really good feeling about today.”
Radloff has more than two decades of guiding experience to back up his optimism.
And in a rare confluence of schedules, this early October day was indeed shaping up to be memorable.
Our group of four included Dennis’ father, Randy Radloff, 65, of New Holstein; fishing guide Brett Jolly, 34, of Green Bay; and me.
Radloff runs Sterling Guide Service. Jolly runs Captain Jolly Charters.
They are cooperators, not competitors. And along with a third local guide, Brett Alexander, they share information daily and assist each other in staying “on the bite.”
“We probably talk most when the fishing is toughest,” Radloff said.
On a rare off-day for the guides (they had clients cancel), the four of us set out to test the waters.
The outing was notable for several reasons. It was the first time good friends Radloff and Jolly fished in the same boat.
The trip was in prime time for fall musky fishing.
And most important for Radloff, it was the first time he’d been able to get his father on the water in some time.
“You get working and you’re typically so busy. . . “ Radloff said, issuing a son’s lament.
Past misgivings dissolved as we motored into the bay and focused on the present.
The air temperature was about 50, the water about 60. The fog lifted as we passed through the lower bay’s shipping channel about 8 a.m.
Flocks of gulls wheeled in the air and dived onto the water. Feeding birds are typically a good omen for anglers.
“They’re in here eating shad,” Jolly said of the gulls. “If the bait fish are here, bigger fish will be, too.”
Jolly slowed the boat as we reached a shallow flat in the southwestern corner of the bay and he and Radloff began to set lines.
The best musky action typically comes by trolling large crank baits behind planer boards. The water on the flat was 7-10 feet deep; the lures were set to run about 5 feet down.
Radloff said the muskies follow migrations of gizzard shad, yellow perch and whitefish to various parts of the bay in late summer and fall.
“By being out here every day, we keep on top of the movements,” Radloff said. “You line up as many of the details in your favor as possible and good things can happen.”
Though the bay and Lake Michigan had a native population of musky, the species was effectively eliminated in local waters through the middle 1900s by a variety of factors, including habitat degradation and water pollution.
In the 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources launched a reintroduction program for the native strain of musky, called the Great Lakes spotted muskellunge.
It led to a resurgence of the fishery and earned Green Bay a reputation as one of the state’s top musky fishing destinations.
Radloff has caught-and-released as many as 14 muskies in a day on the bay with clients. He’s also had a six-day streak during which he landed 10 or more muskies a day.
Jolly had a 13-musky day with a group of inexperienced anglers on a bachelor party outing.
At the end of the trip, which included an hour lunch break in town, the anglers asked: “Was this a good day?”
Growth rates and survival of muskies on the bay has been exceptional. A 53-inch, 53-pound musky caught in 2001 was aged at 12½ years old. In most areas of Wisconsin, it takes from 18 to 20 years for a musky to reach 50 inches.
However, the discovery of viral hemorrhagic septicemia fish disease in the bay took some wind out of the fisheries’ sails in the last decade. The stocking program was suspended from 2007 to 2009 and has since been resumed at a fraction of the former rate.
The muskies have spread out and are using more areas of the bay, said Radloff, and fishing pressure has affected catch rates for many anglers, too.
A professional musky tournament held on the bay in September produced a total catch of zero fish over two days.
That can happen, especially in bad weather. But as always, it helps immensely to have experience on your side. The fish of a lifetime can be a short troll away.
“Not that muskies are Harvard-educated braniacs, but they have adjusted to fishing tactics and pressure,” Radloff said.
Radloff and Jolly began their double-team effort.
They set out eight lines, each with a 5- to 7-inch crank bait at the end of a fluorocarbon leader. At least half of the lures were perch patterns.
By using line counter reels, they know the distance the lures are running behind the boards.
Jolly used the kicker motor for forward motion and the bow mount trolling motor for direction. The speed was kept at 3-3½ mph.
Radloff and Jolly closely monitor the moon phase. Moonset was 10:26 a.m. The guides were both optimistic about fish action over the coming hours.
At 8:30, a planer board on the port side lagged then disappeared beneath the waves.
“Fish!” Radloff said.
Randy Radloff reached over and grabbed the rod and began reeling. Jolly slowed the motor. Dennis Radloff and I cleared some of the other lines.
“Feels big,” Randy said. “I can tell you it ain’t no perch.”
After 5 minutes, he gained enough line for Jolly to clip off the planer board.
The fish rolled on the surface twice, revealing a broad, olive back.
“Oh Lord!” Randy said. “It’s a freighter.”
Five more minutes of give-and-take brought the fish to the stern and into the net. The 42-inch musky was thick and handsome. It was released after a quick photo.
As the morning wore on, the west wind ushered out the clouds and we fished in sunshine. Red, yellow and orange foliage dotted the horizon.
At 10:30, a starboard planer board drifted back. Minutes later a 41½-inch northern pike was in the net.
Radloff and Jolly catch northern with some regularity as they target musky. An occasional walleye also hits their trolled lures.
A 60-inch lake sturgeon took Jolly for a ride a few years ago, too, and had him believing he had a world-record musky on the line.
But mostly it’s musky that hit the big crank baits. And each one is cherished.
At 11:15, another planer board gets dunked. Randy Radloff takes the rod and starts reeling. Ten minutes later Dennis slips the net under 48 inches of Great Lakes spotted musky.
The fish has a 23-inch girth and likely weighs over 30 pounds. After a quick photo it is released.
Randy Radloff, father of a musky guide, had never caught a musky.
“I’ll be grinning for a whole week,” Randy said.
At 1 p.m. we decided to call it a day. We had caught and released three fish over 40 inches in five hours.
This is why, with the right partners, experience and equipment, anglers believe.